Cavaliers have the NBA’s top defense, and it’s an identity they relish

CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Cavaliers pride themselves on the defensive end of the floor.

It’s been established their identity as a defense-minded team, especially over the last two seasons under coach JB Bickerstaff, manifesting itself in different ways on the court and through the symbol of the Junkyard Dog Chain. Even as there has been an offensive explosion as of late, the Cavs are continuously going against the grain and focusing on their defence.

“It means the most, like, defense wins championships,” Donovan Mitchell said. “But at the end of the day, you got to put the ball in the bucket, too. But if we’re able to hold — and we’ve held some good teams to some tough nights — and that’s what’s going to be our identity.”

Mitchell has noticed that whether or not the Cavs are having offensive success, their defense doesn’t drastically change. He sees that as a sign of a team thats trying to grow.

It proved that once again Wednesday against the Phoenix Suns, as Cleveland held the Suns to under 100 points. Though the Cavs struggled offensively, missing their first 14 3-point attempts, scoring 15 points in the first quarter and only 33 in the first half, Cleveland relied on getting stops to beat Phoenix 90-88.

Caris LeVert saw a level of maturity in their defense Wednesday night as they worked through not having a flow offensively. When the offense is flowing, it’s easier to play defense. But as the Cavs struggled to make shots, they still displayed a high level of effort defensively. They forced two shot-clock violations in the first quarter, had nine steals and forced Phoenix into 15 turnovers. It wasn’t pretty. But it was gritty.

This type of game also serves as preparation for what could come later in the regular season and into the postseason.

“I think we take pride in these types of games because we know in the playoffs it’s not gonna be pretty,” LeVert said. “It’s gonna be more of a half-court game. It’s not gonna be just up-and-down, and you’re gonna have to get kinda gritty stops. A 10-foot game winner, catch-and-shoot, like, you don’t see stuff like that regularly. So I think wins like that are good for just us internally, knowing we can win that way.”

Wednesday’s game against the Suns was the 12th this season that the Cavs held an opponent under 100 points. Almost halfway through the regular season, the Cavs have the best defensive rating in the league at 108.5 points per 100 possessions.

Bickerstaff had a conversation with the Cavs last week about their defense, reminding them of their defensive rating and the importance of taking pride on the defensive end no matter what happens offensively. It was a conversation they took to heart.

Bickerstaff has seen how they’ve embraced that identity this season through their commitment, scrap, grit and mental toughness. It’s helped them persevere through games such as on Wednesday night. Kevin Love has noticed the same.

“Yeah, I just think that we know our concepts,” Love said. “Everybody’s super locked in to start the game. And when things aren’t going well, as you saw tonight and offensively, we’ve really let that be our identity and allow us a chance to win every game or pretty much every game that we play.”

They have conversations about focusing on their defence. They remind one another of the importance of getting to the next stop.

“For sure, and we talked about that tonight,” Love said. “After quarters, halftime, down the stretch, we were just like, ‘All right,’ because it’s right there. It’s coming. If we just keep doing what we’re supposed to on the defensive end, we can pull out a win here. So again, we give ourselves a chance. We were banking on our defense to get us there.”

When the Cavs evaluate how well they played defensively, there are certain factors they look at and watch, Bickerstaff said. They focus on whether they dictated what they were willing to live with on the defensive end. They have a shot profile they are willing to live with. Are they contesting 3s, and what is the contest rate of those 3s? How did they protect the paint? Did they play physically enough? Did they foul too much?

But they also look at the numbers. The Cavs’ staff has certain personnel whose responsibility is to look at numbers and trends. They’ll look at defensive field goal percentage, defensive 3-point field goal percentage, points in the paint and contest rate. There’s a balance in the eye test and the analytics.

The Cavs are second in the league in opponent points in the paint, allowing an average of 45.4. Only the Miami Heat are above the Cavs at 44.5. According to NBA.com, the Cavs are eighth in opposing field goal percentage at 46.1 percent. They are 23rd in opponent 3-point field goal percentage at 36.3 percent.

The Cavs know how to play to their strengths and rely on the defence. They have Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, who use their height and length to protect the paint and rim. They have defense-minded guys in Isaac Okoro and Lamar Stevens, who play with scrappiness and are willing to take defensive challenges. Love has a willingness to take charges — he leads the league in charges drawn with 16, or 0.53 per game. In their backcourt, Mitchell, LeVert and Darius Garland have shown their willingness and effort to guard. Then they have other rotation players, like Raul Neto and Cedi Osman, who can come in and serve as a spark. Neto won the Junkyard Dog Chain for his efforts on both ends of the floor against the Suns.

“I feel like it’s very tough to be the best defense nowadays,” Mobley said. “Every team has multiple guys that are super good and super talented. Just hang our hats on our defense every night. I feel like all of our guys are very versatile and can guard multiple positions. That’s what makes us so good on defense.”


(Photo of Kevin Love diving to keep the ball on Wednesday: David Richard / USA Today)

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